Both the Black Stars and their coach are under intense pressure but the tournament in Gabon could just be the perfect chance to put their woes to bed, writes Pulse Sports’ Emmanuel Ayamga.
The Black Stars will be up against it to end Ghana's trophy drought as well as win back the favour of their home fans, while their under-fire coach is also fighting to keep his job after a disastrous end to 2016 which saw the team win just once in their last six matches. However winning the ultimate in Gabon could actually offer some respite for both parties.
At Avram Grant's unveiling as Black Stars coach, he sat looking all smiles as he occasionally turned left to share jokes with communications director of the Ghana Football Association, Ibrahim Saanie Daara. As he answered question upon question from journalists you could sense the gaiety that encapsulated his responses. So much so, that he even answered compelling and unfriendly questions with a wry smile.
On one occasion Saanie subtly asked Grant: “How do you see the Ghanaian media?” The Israeli hesitated, and then replied: “Well, very interesting”. Then, the most expected question was put to him: “What do you wish to achieve with the Black Stars?” He looked relaxed and sure that he was the right man for job, opening up to the media on how he plans to make the Black Stars competitive on the continent and beyond.
That day he was media friendly – although the same cannot be said for his subsequent meetings with the local media – and he looked fired up for his first job on the African continent. That was expected, considering the fact that it was a dream job for Grant – perhaps the biggest beside his short stint with Premier League outfit Chelsea.
The initial signs pointed to the fact that the union between the Black Stars and the Israeli was going to be the perfect marriage made in heaven. After all, he had the big name, a huge brand, the right profile. And after steering Ghana to a second-place finish at the Africa Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea within a month of taking charge, Grant looked like the man to finally take the Black Stars to the next level.
That has not happened, though, with the following year taking a downward twist - so bad that it is destined to go down as one of the worst in recent Black Stars history. Poor performances, poor results and a poor ranking for Ghana are the common factors that the Black Stars would most likely be remembered for in the last 12 months. In short, 2016 was a year to forget for Grant and his Black Stars team.
Fortunately they have the chance to write-off that bad year as another tournament beckons – only that this time their coach does not have the luxury of that smile that graced his face when he appeared at his maiden press conference as Ghana coach. He can no longer afford to share jokes when, in reality, he faces a battle against time to keep his job – a job with a lot of expectations which seem to have overwhelmed him.
But now the die is cast. The annus horribilis that the Black Stars and Avram Grant endured in 2016 has culminated in squeezing them into a tight corner that leaves them with no option than to deliver at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon. The ill-fated spells of 2016 can be put aside - at least for now - but a new challenge awaits; a much tougher, fate-defining challenge for that matter. Grant and his charges have been underwhelming in recent times, and with their bid for a fourth successive World Cup appearance almost over, the Africa Cup of Nations presents the perfect opportunity for redemption. And they better take it, especially for Grant!
The Israeli coach is back to square one. When he first took charge of the Black Stars his job was cut out. The GFA openly stated that he should "go and do well" at the AFCON in Equatorial Guinea. To give him the benefit of the doubt, he impressed with the team. After a slow start, which resulted in a 2-1 setback in the hands of Senegal in the tournament opener, the Black Stars superbly bounced back to go all the way to the final - eventually losing to Ivory Coast on penalties. A second-place finish for a coach who was only a month into his tenure cannot be begrudged by anyone, and Grant rightly earned plaudits for that feat.
However, his current situation is in stark contrast to what it was in 2015. Back then his job was stable, and it was not dependent on the performance that the Black Stars churned out at the tournament. Win, lose or draw, Grant was still going to keep his job. There was no pressure, no urge and no risk of a sack.
But two years down the line and Grant is back to where it all started. The difference here is that this time it could actually be the beginning of the end for the former Chelsea boss. The polls no longer swing in his favour and, he does not have the stability that he enjoyed when he first took charge. Two years ago a runners-up medal was acceptable, but the dynamics have simply changed: now he MUST win the trophy to keep his job. Anything less is sure to be met with hostility from the ever demanding Ghanaian fans. The fairytale beginning which saw the Black Stars getting the needed results is over, and now Grant must engineer another masterpiece in Gabon or risk facing the sack.
Interestingly, while their coach battles to keep his job, the Black Stars are also fazed by a double conundrum. First they need to win back the warmth of a fandom gone cold, and then there is the bigger demon of a 35-year trophy drought which is yet to be exorcized. Either ways, the Black Stars will surely relish the chance to put both issues to bed once and for all.
This is a team that has barely enjoyed any form of respite in recent times. In the last two-years the performances of the Black Stars have been characterized by inconsistency. If reaching the AFCON final two years ago was the zenith, then the fallout from the 2014 world cup represents the nadir. The scar that that episode left on the fans is still fresh and very little has changed ever since then. The home fans still feel bitter about the embarrassing scenes created in Brazil which portrayed the Black Stars players as mercenaries.
In the aftermath of that fiasco in Brazil, the fans have turned their backs on the Black Stars. The past two-years have represented a period when the team has witnessed its lowest turnout in terms of spectatorship in the last decade. Fan turnout for home matches has been appalling, but more worrying is the fact that the interest in the Black Stars has progressively waned. The excitement and euphoria that used to characterize Black Stars matches looks long gone, with pessimism taking over. It is a development that is worrying, especially after the team was booed in a home match against Uganda in 2014. The love story between the Black Stars and the home fan base is now broken, and that is evidenced by the apathetic attitude of fans towards the team.
But that gap could be bridged if they can lay their hands on the trophy in Gabon. And in doing that they will actually be killing two birds with one stone. Why? Because there is also the ghost of a trophy drought which has haunted the nation for the past three and half decades. The Black Stars have always been close to that elusive trophy, yet so far. The fans wish for nothing more than to see the nation end that drought in Gabon. And if the Black Stars can pull it off this time, then it could serve as redemption for the tumultuous last two years they have endured.
Currently, Avram Grant and the Black Stars are fazed by a double-edged sword, but they both have an opportunity to turn things around. For Grant, it’s very simple: if he wins the Africa Cup of Nations, he will surely keep his job. On the part of the Black Stars, they have another golden opportunity to end that nightmarish 35-year trophy drought, as well as get the home fan base back on their side. Which ever way it is put, the AFCON presents the perfect opportunity for both parties to have some respite.
And so as Ghana takes on Uganda in the group D opener in Port Gentil, the mission for redemption also takes off, and there’s no turning back!